PhD stuck points


There are some points in the PhD process where the going gets pretty tough. Stuck points, where it’s hard work. Where it’s difficult to move on.

Now don’t get me wrong. These points don’t cause grief to everyone. I’m not talking about something that is inevitable. But there are points where a lot of people do find themselves slowed down, where what seemed to be making-pretty-good-progress-through-the-doctorate comes to an abrupt and unwelcome halt.

And it’s often a going-round-in-circles halt. A what-am-I-doing-this PhD-for halt. A maybe-I-can’t-do–this halt. A confidence-sapping halt where you just can’t seem to make headway, despite all of the things you try.

The good news is that PhD stuck points are generally only a temporary change of pace,  even if they seem interminable at the time. That’s because these are points where really serious thinking time, and a lot of playing around with possibilities, are needed.

So what are these points? Well, they can be one or all of these:

  • Sorting out the research question or hypothesis. Getting the right wording in the question.

Finding your way to be sufficiently focused but still clear that you don’t know the answer yet; open but not so open that you have to write pages and pages of definitions and boundary setting; careful to avoid contentious terms that get you into shedloads of trouble – this is hard. You often don’t get the research question right in one, two or even three goes. The research question needs a lot of work.

  • Sorting out the research design.

It can be tricky to match the amount and kind of data you need to your methods, within a suitable methodological frame. The implications of choosing this group over that. The possibilities of doing something here or there. The benefits of this process versus another potentially interesting approach. These decisions take time to work through.

Because you will have to justify these choices to the examiner there is no getting out of thinking these design issues through. You can’t fake your way through it. And it’s important to get the design right, as it is the foundation of everything that you do from now on. You can do the PhD with not reading everything at the start – but you can’t just muddle through a poorly designed project.

  • Tacking the analysis.

It’s pretty easy to feel completely snowed under by the mountains of data that you have amassed. And it’s daunting when you realise that it’s down to you to make the decisions about what to do. That it’s sometimes a bit arbitrary about where you start.

No matter how rigorous the analytic tool that you choose to use, there is a point where interpretation kicks in. Interpreting means you putting your head on the block. You have make the best and most defensible decision that you can about analysis, but decide you must.

  • Wrestling your (mostly analysed) material into a thesis structure.

Even if you follow the default IMRaD formula, there are still decisions to make about what to include and exclude, what to put where, how much detail is needed and about what. But if you are working with a thesis structure that responds to the moves of the argument, then this point really does take all of your imagination, as well as some hard graft.

Of course, there can be other points in the PhD where you are stymied. You may have ethical difficulties. Or perhaps something has not gone as expected and your careful plans need to be remade. But these stuck points are less predictable, they don’t happen to loads of people, and they usually have more to do with serendipity than poor planning. (Unless of course you did plan poorly –  that will be because you were too worried about being stuck, and moved on too quickly from (1) the question and (2) the design.)

But hang on, Let’s reframe the idea of stuck.

Perhaps these are not actually points where you are stuck. Stuck points aren’t necessarily the same as being bogged down, as going nowhere and just spinning your wheels – even if that’s how it might feel.  Let’s think of these as the places where you need to change gear, to adopt different processes.

Perhaps you need to stop worrying about the clock and take the time that is needed. Perhaps these are the places/times where you need to be like the little train that could, and move as much or little as you can, remaining confident that you will get there if you stick at it.

I think I can, I think I can.

I want to reassure you that stuck points in the PhD process are, well, simply hard. But possible. They just require you to take the time and head space to sort out.

Knowing this can help you to avoid the slough of despair. It can stop you from the counter-productive exercise of berating yourself for being stupid.

The stuck points are where you do key bits of thinking and deciding. They are where you make progress. They aren’t to be rushed. If you understand this, then you are better prepared – and you can even see the hazards coming up. They don’t take you by surprise.

You have time to think about the kinds of strategies that you need to adopt to deal with each decision, each puzzle. You are better able to be kind to yourself while you work out what to do, and where to go with your research.

Image credit: Greg Siminoff. Flickr Commons.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, data analysis, PhD, research design, research question, structure, stuck points, style and structure, thesis and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to PhD stuck points

  1. This post came at a perfect time for me: I’m just coming out of one of those stuck points (after quite a bit of wrestling). You’ve described the experience really accurately. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. Stefanie says:

    I just needed to read this and I shared post with non-academic friends (my partner for example). This rings so true “And it’s often a going-round-in-circles halt. A what-am-I-doing-this PhD-for halt. A maybe-I-can’t-do–this halt. A confidence-sapping halt where you just can’t seem to make headway, despite all of the things you try.” I am trying to shake it off and get back into the game…I know I can do it but but but….


  5. Fa says:

    That’s exactly what I’m in. I’m trying to get over these stuck point and move on.



  6. galjuwaiser says:

    I’m stuck with the analysis .. what to include and what to exclude. Panicking bout the timeline, my scholarship, my visa etc. “Perhaps you need to stop worrying about the clock and take the time that is needed. ” it’s true, though easier to say than to be in this situation. I want to thank you cause I really needed this. wish me luck to surpass this milestone, which seems not going to finish </3


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